Dissatisfied with merely being Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson recently appointed himself nanny to its 67 million residents as well. His goal: to make sure everyone is eating right. While Britain’s most famous nanny, Mary Poppins, once advised her charges that “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,” Nanny Boris apparently intends to forbid such indulgences in the least delightful way.
Last month, his Conservative government announced a raft of new food regulations and restrictions. These go well beyond the usual and familiar “advice” and urgings from government, the news media, public health officials and schoolteachers. Johnson’s measures prohibit junk food ads on TV before 9 pm, ban “buy one get one free” deals on unhealthy food, require new calorie-counts on restaurant menus, and add rules on where certain food products can be displayed in shops. This regulatory effort is intended to reduce obesity.
The former London mayor attributed the program’s genesis to the effects of the Covid pandemic – including his own experience. “I was too fat,” confessed Johnson, who caught the virus and spent time in an ICU. Once a frequent and vociferous critic of the nanny state, he instead promised that, “We want [these measures] to be really sympathetic to people, to understand the difficulties that people face with their weight, the struggles that many, many people face to lose weight, and just to be helpful.” The British press quickly weighed in with stories featuring profiles of chronically obese Britons who fretted that the PM’s program goes too far, not far enough, or fails to tackle the problem at its source – overweight kids.
Whether Johnson’s campaign will make people slimmer is yet to be seen. It will certainly make government fatter and more controlling. The Canadian nanny state has similarly grown plump in recent years, as the temptation among politicians to exercise ever-greater control over the lives of citizens appears irresistible. Earlier this year, for example, British Columbia announced that its sales tax exemption on food would no longer apply to sweetened carbonated beverages, even those that have no sugar. It is a soda tax in disguise, and a paternalistic effort to control what beverages people choose to drink.
In Ontario, the previous Liberal government was also an eager adopter of food rules meant to exert government control over the public diet. Two examples: a requirement that restaurant chains with 20 or more locations must post calorie counts on their menus, and a ban on French fries in high school cafeterias. Thankfully, current Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford appears far less interested in scolding folks for the occasional indulgence. Quite the opposite. In May, he suggested people spend their pandemic self-isolation time baking cheesecakes. He even released an instructional video for his family’s cherry cheesecake recipe, which requires a cup of sugar, a cup of icing sugar, a half brick of butter, and one-and-a-half pounds of cream cheese.
The hefty premier’s proclaimed preference for high-fat desserts is no match, however, for the unquenchable nanny instincts of governments and public intellectuals around the world. The Commonwealth Fund, a health care think-tank in New York, calls obesity a “public health crisis.” The World Health Organization coined the term “globesity” to refer to an “escalating global epidemic” of obesity. Even Pope Francis weighed in last year to lament that food is “consumed in excess” in much of the developed world. Indeed, statistics show that 60 per cent of the population of member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) are overweight.
For the purpose of this discussion, let’s accept a recent OECD report – based on Body Mass Index (BMI) data − that in its 36 member countries average life expectancy is 2.7 years shorter as a result of people being overweight or obese. In addition to shorter life expectancies, obesity is also blamed for higher levels of unemployment and absenteeism, lower worker productivity, earlier retirement, and higher health care costs, all of which lead to slower economic growth. Based on its modelling work, the OECD puts the total economic damage caused by overweightedness at 3.3 percent of GDP across the entire OECD.
Such a sizeable cost might suggest nanny state efforts to tax, nudge, regulate, subsidize, re-educate, or otherwise encourage citizens to improve their diets are justified. But is it really the proper role of governments to forcibly maximize citizens’ life expectancy or their lifetime earnings? Of course not. The only thing a government should care about maximizing when it comes to citizens’ personal lives is their own, entirely subjective, sense of well-being. And while there may be certain costs to obesity, there are also compensating benefits.
It is entirely possible that some (perhaps most) people have decided the costs of obesity are exceeded by its benefits. These include the enjoyment of more food, the reduced stress of not feeling hungry all the time or worrying about the composition and calorie-count of every potential snack or meal, and living a life unencumbered by government oversight or rigorous physical activity.
Society might even be better off with more obesity rather than less. Consider a recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research into the effects of an Obamacare mandate in 2010 that required U.S. chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus, similar to that enacted in Ontario. “We find that calorie mandates lead to a small but statistically significant reduction in average BMI,” the report concludes. Yet among the report’s conclusions was that “the presence of calorie labeling mandates leads to a reduction in self-reported life satisfaction.” The researchers concluded that the mandatory calorie counts made some consumers worse off by “inflicting a welfare-reducing moral cost on unhealthy eating” and caused them to “suffer psychological costs.” Eating unhealthy food makes people happy; shaming people into eating healthier makes them unhappy.
Of course, this does not make menu calorie labels an inherently bad idea. Many consumers like such information to help them decide where and what to eat. The study does, however, furnish evidence that government-mandated menu calorie labels are a bad idea. Since the restaurant and fast-food industry is highly competitive, it is in an establishment’s self-interest to provide labels to the extent it perceives such a preference among its clientele. Other restaurants might have a less health-conscious clientele that doesn’t want to be shamed for consuming lots of calories. The likely outcome in a nanny-free environment is that some restaurants would have the calorie labels, and some wouldn’t, depending on what their customers wanted.
Moreover, the extent to which all these studies, claims, and warnings about obesity should even be considered alarming is unclear. Peer-reviewed evidence in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that people who are overweight, or only slightly obese, actually enjoy a longer average lifespan than those with supposedly normal body weight. This is known as the “obesity paradox” and may be due to the protective aspects of a modest amount of body fat or some other medical or psychological phenomenon.
Further, the universal use of BMI to identify ostensibly normal weight, overweight or obesity remains controversial within the medical community. BMI, which is based on height to weight ratios, has grown notorious for categorizing stocky or well-muscled professional athletes and movie stars as being overweight, or worse. (This list includes hockey star Sidney Crosby, James Bond actor Daniel Craig, and action movie icon Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson.) As such, it should be considered a very imprecise measurement. Research published this month in the Canadian Medical Association Journal states that BMI is “not an accurate tool” for identifying obesity-related complications, and recommends it be replaced with a much more holistic approach to body weight and health.
The larger point is that there is no clear reason why the government should interfere with the private decisions of anyone who judges the benefits of food enjoyment and a sedentary lifestyle to be worth the costs of adding a few pounds. After all, the government does not and should not stop somebody from buying, say, a new bicycle on the basis that the government judges the value of it to be less than the price paid by the buyer.
In the case of buying bicycles, it is correctly assumed that the individual buying the bicycle, not the government, has better information and better incentives to weigh the benefits of the bicycle (by how much it will improve his or her standard of living) against the cost and come to the appropriate decision to make the purchase or not. If the result of millions of individuals making their own decisions is that 30 per cent of the population have a bicycle, we would reasonably conclude that for 30 per cent of the population, the benefits of owning a bicycle are greater than the costs. If the government tried to drive the number up to 40 per cent, or cut it to 20 per cent, through taxes, nudges, or regulations, the result would be to make society worse off.
There is no difference in principle between this decision-making process and an individual’s decisions concerning what, when, and how much to eat. Both these areas, and many more besides, should be left up to the individual exercising personal judgment. Indeed, Britain’s prime minister was free to decide that getting himself through the immense pressures of his job might be ameliorated at least somewhat by eating what he wanted, when he wanted. And while Johnson gained weight as a result, he then decided it was important to slim down and, by exercising vigorously, he has begun to shed that weight. Note that he did so without the necessity of the very regulations he now wishes to impose on his fellow citizens. Sadly, Johnson seems to have lost sight of the role of personal motivation and decision-making in his own story.
We should also note an important fact – one so obvious that it should hardly need stating, but is nevertheless often ignored – that today’s high obesity rates are the result of more than two centuries of astonishing economic progress. For most of human history the masses toiled for long hours doing backbreaking manual labour to try to produce enough food to avoid starvation. And in many instances, they failed, catastrophically. Famines killing millions at a time were common right into the middle of the 20th century, though, thankfully, starvation has become less common as developing countries move up the economic ladder.
Rather than being a social crisis for governments to solve, obesity might rather be seen as an incidental result of the freedom and prosperity that have given people the option to enjoy a sedentary lifestyle and consume food as they wish. Such freely-made choices are not for the government to overrule. The effect of regulations and restrictions on the advertisement and sale of unhealthy food is to prevent businesses from delivering what consumers demand. Instead, in a nanny state, businesses are forced to deliver what politicians say consumers ought to demand. This is not how the economy, or society, should function.
Let people be overweight if they want to be. Where politicians should really be cutting fat is on the government rule books.
Matthew Lau is a Toronto writer.